America’s NATO ally Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdish fighters allied with a U.S.-backed militia in Syria, a testament to the growing rift between Ankara and Washington over the war against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in the Middle East.
An unnamed senior U.S. defense official revealed to Reuters that Kurds struck by Turkey’s warplanes were not themselves U.S.-backed but were “close to and friendly with” the fighters Washington is working with, namely the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls large swathes of northern Syria.
Reuters described the airstrikes as “ the heaviest against the YPG since Turkey launched a military incursion into Syria two months ago,” adding that “the Turkish military said its air strikes had destroyed nine buildings, one armored vehicle and four other vehicles that belonged to the YPG.”
Overnight into Thursday, Turkish warplanes targeted positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in three villages, located northeast of the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, that the SDF seized from ISIS, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which uses a network of ground sources to monitor the conflict in Syria.
The U.S.-backed SDF is a Kurdish-Arab alliance led by the YPG militia.
While the United States considers the YPG militia to be its ally and most effective ground force against ISIS, fellow NATO member Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters to be aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a communist-separatist group that has been designated a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.
“The Turkish military confirmed its warplanes had carried out 26 strikes on areas recently taken by the Kurdish YPG militia, the strongest force in the SDF, and that it had killed between 160 and 200 combatants,” notes Reuters.
“Officials of the Kurdish-led administration that controls much of northeastern Syria said dozens had been killed,” adds Reuters.
Citing the Turkish airstrikes, a reporter asked U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter during a news conference at the Pentagon Thursday if he was concerned the U.S. alliance with Turkey was unraveling.
The Pentagon chief responded:
With respect to Turkey, our partnership is very strong in the counter ISIL campaign. We’re working with the Turks now very successfully to help them secure their border area. And we work with them in a number of ways on the counter-ISIL campaign. They’re strong partners in that [anti-ISIL campaign]…
We’re still gathering facts about this report [about Turkish airstrikes]… so I can’t comment on that or confirm that… We work through issues as they arise. We’ve managed to do that successfully, and I expect that that will continue.
Carter’s comments came on the eve of his visit to Turkey and a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted the ongoing efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to push ISIS out of Iraq, demanding a bigger role for Turkish troops.
Although some in the Obama administration have acknowledged that the Syrian Kurdish militia is aligned with the terrorist PKK, the White House maintains that YPG militia is not a terrorist organization.
Erdogan is angered that Turkey has not been allowed to participate in the ongoing offensive to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and ISIS de-facto capital in the country. Turkey is in favor of removing Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad from power.
The Assad regime described the Turkish strikes as an act of “blatant aggression” against Syria, threatening that it would shoot down Turkish fighters entering Syrian airspace.
Shells fired from the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region of Syria, which sits west of where the airstrikes hit, landed in an empty field in Turkey’s Hatay province on Thursday, declared the Turkish military, adding that the move triggered retaliatory howitzer fire from Turkey.
The Turkish army bombarded villages near Afrin overnight, the pro-Kurdish Anha news agency said. Footage purportedly showed smoke billowing out from the Syrian side of the border. Anha said there were casualties from the shelling by what it described as at least 44 howitzers.
The Turkish army also said 21 PKK militants had been killed in operations in Hakkari province in Turkey’s southeast, where violence has flared since the PKK abandoned a ceasefire in 2015.